Working for a psycho boss is easy… if you’re one too
If your boss is a psychopath, don’t worry. The good news is you can still flourish in the workplace — provided you are also a Machiavellian schemer who is wholly devoid of empathy.
That is the conclusion of a study that found that the people best placed to cope with a psychopathic manager are those who are psychopaths too; largely because they are not especially upset by being treated badly.
“People who score high in primary psychopathy lack empathy and are cool-headed and fearless,” Charlice Hurst, of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, said. “They don’t react to things that cause other people to feel stressed, fearful or angry.”
She argued that this meant that businesses run by such people ended up becoming psychopath traps, with emotionally normal employees choosing to leave and find employment elsewhere rather than endure toxic working environments.
“Companies with a problem of endemic abuse might notice increased turnover among employees low in primary psychopathy and retention of those high in primary psychopathy,” Professor Hurst said.
As a consequence, simply by being unfazed, the psychopaths blossom in such workplaces. “At the extreme, they could end up with a highly engaged workforce of psychopaths.”
For her research, published in the Journal of Business Ethics, she presented 314 people from a range of different jobs with fictional profiles of a manager called Joe. One Joe was inspirational, supportive and considerate. The other was not. He used corporate speak, possessing “smooth but content- deficient oral communication skills”. He bullied people, claimed credit for his employees’ work and was wholly lacking in empathy.
Despite such wildly differing styles, the people in the study were told that both Joes were equally respected and valued by senior management. With an average time in the employment of 8.7 years, most of the volunteers had been in work long enough not to find such a statement surprising. They were then asked a series of questions about the boss, to establish how angry the description would make them if they were his employee.
While all would be happy to work with the supportive Joe, most disliked his evil alter ego — but the extent to which they disliked him was mediated by their own psychopathy. The most psychopathic employees saw no difference between the two Joes. In a second experiment a similar number of people were asked about working with their own real-life bosses over the previous month, concentrating on the sort of behaviours exemplified by evil Joe. Were they on the receiving end of rudeness and gossip? Did their supervisor take credit for their work? If so, how did they feel?
Again, the psychopaths were found to be less troubled by being subjected to abusive behaviour, reporting that they were feeling less angry, more positive and engaged.
The finding was particularly pertinent given a growing body of research that has found that the sort of people likely to make it to the top of the career ladder in large organisations are precisely those with “dark” personality traits.
Professor Hurst said that such dynamics may be ultimately damaging for businesses. “It may reward and retain exactly the kind of people who are likely to perpetuate abusive cultures,” she said. “Psychopaths thriving under abusive supervisors would be better positioned to get ahead.”